Gawain’s Sisyphean Struggle for Greatness
When I announced to the world that I was watching the Green Knight, the world told me it was trippy. I was expecting something akin to the boat ride in the original Willy Wonka. What I got was a very personal examination of mental health.
I have always known that I was destined for greatness. That’s what happens when your parents repeatedly tell you how intelligent you are. All those standardized state tests said I had a genius level IQ. On one eye-rolling occasion, I got a talking-to because I only scored at the 95th percentile and they weren’t sure I was taking it seriously.
Since then, I have flunked out of college twice and am saved from the cliché about living in my mother’s basement only because my mother doesn’t have a basement. How do you square that circle? Forty years of undiagnosed depression.
When I saw Sir Gawain struggling for greatness against his own nature, it spoke to me.
The film begins with a Christmas celebration, and while most of us think of it as a time for family and food, it’s also a celebration of humble beginnings that lead to greatness. And, because the universe has a sense of humor, it’s my birthday.
Gawain wants to become a knight, but spends his time drinking and whoring. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s the wrong sort of sword practice.
At the Christmas feast, Gawain is called to sit at the right hand of King Arthur—one of the most enduring symbols of greatness in western literature. Before he sits, Arthur asks Gawain to tell the tale of his exploits and a chagrined Gawain tells the king—and all his knights—that he has none.
Enter the Green Knight in his creepy, creaky Treebeard cosplay with a challenge. “Fight me,” he says, “and whatever injury you inflict upon me, I shall inflict upon you one year hence.”
Gawain, shamed in public, took up the challenge. Arthur hands him Excalibur and with borrowed glory, Gawain strikes off the head of the Green Knight.
He didn’t have to. He could have declined to strike a man who wouldn’t fight back. He could have knocked the Green Knight to the floor and demanded he submit. He could have done a lot of things.
What he did, though, was seize momentary glory at the expense of future disaster. The film doesn’t say whether Gawain forgot he’d suffer the same injury, assumed the knight wouldn’t be able to return the favor, or whether he was uncaring of the future. I suspect it’s the latter because, well, I’ve been there.
The Green Knight puts his head back in place and walks out. Gawain is the subject of every story. If greatness is measured in fame, he has it, but he’s still not a knight. He spends most of that year drinking and whoring because, of course he does.
On his way to meet the Green Knight, he is bested by peasants, helps a woman find her lost head, and betrays a host to save his own skin.
I want to talk about his experiences with St. Winifred, but I have to pause and relate her story so all the bits and pieces make sense.
Winifred was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, and a virgin. She enraged her suitor by deciding to become a nun and in his rage, he chopped her head off. Here’s the key bit—a healing spring appeared where her head fell.
When Gawain first encounters Winifred, she appears to be very much alive. She insists, though, that she has lost her head and entreats Gawain to retrieve it from a pool of water.
Gawain dives into the healing pool and retrieves the skull, but when he tries to return it to Winifred, she’s deader than disco.
This confusion between life and death—reality and madness—is a common theme throughout. Everything is surreal, and it’s clear it’s not just the audience that is confused. At one point, Gawain even asks Winifred if she’s alive or a spirit and she responds that there’s no difference.
When Gawain comes out of the pond, cured of whatever ails him, he sees her dead. I see a connection between reality and death, as if the fantasy—or the madness—is preferable to reality because it hurts less.
Knights are not supposed to recoil before the enemy, but when the Green Knight is set to take a chop at Gawain’s neck, Gawain flinches. He tries again, and Gawain flinches again. The Green Knight chastises him, but Gawain nopes the fuck out of there to return to Camelot.
In Camelot, he is knighted, becomes king when Arthur dies, and is, ultimately, reviled by his own people.
Then we’re back with the Green Knight and it’s revealed that everything since the second flinch was a vision Gawain had of his future. He clearly doesn’t like it, because he tells the Green Knight he’s ready to be relieved of his head. The Green Knight makes the I’m-gonna-slit-your-throat gesture, and the movie ends.
It’s important—to me, if not to anyone else—that the vision Gawain sees is what would happen if he left without fulfilling his pledge. He’s supposed to allow the Green Knight to give him the same injury he gave the Green Knight. When he doesn’t, he’s not rejecting greatness, he’s declining to do what is necessary to achieve greatness.
I think it’s entirely possible that Gawain is incapable of facing his fate without seeing that vision. It’s just not in his nature to accept certain death. If you’re picking up what I’m laying down, you’ll have already reached the conclusion that death is reality. Gawain cannot accept death the way those of us with mental illnesses cannot accept reality.
Whenever someone posts on social that they are having a bad mental health day, you will invariably someone remind them that their brain is lying to them. They—we—know that our brains are lying, but in that moment, we’re incapable of separating reality from fantasy—even when the reality is less hurtful. See Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and others.
When we tell others that their brain is lying, we’re offering them a tool to help them grit their way through a bad moment, hoping a good one is around the corner. It might be. It often is. Just as often, the entire concept of good moments seems incomprehensible.
Gawain’s struggle is with himself. He desires greatness but cannot stomach doing what it takes to achieve it. I’m also struggling with myself. I want to be a great writer. I want to be a prolific writer. And yet, every day I struggle to put words on the page.
I think it’s important that the film ended before we had a resolution because there is no resolution. No matter what Gawain does, he’s going to struggle with himself. No matter what I do, I’m going to struggle with myself.
I see a therapist. I see a psychiatrist. I’m on medication. Every day is a Sisyphean struggle where Sisyphus is, by definition, not happy.